The unusual urban lives of New Zealand's penguins
Tucked away in rainforests, rocky crevices or under parked cars, these hidden (and not-so-well-hidden) birds are having a rough ride. Welcome to New Zealand, home to one third of the world’s penguins
Car tyres rumble on tarmac. Ferries blast their horns. The smell of roasted coffee lingers and small waves carve into concrete harbour walls. Whilst only a stone’s throw from the lush native bush and outdoor adventure that New Zealand is often famed for, Wellington, on North Island’s southern tip, is very much a city, and its busy streets are home to over 400,000 people. Why is it then that a seabird with flippers is sheltering under a car at the water’s edge?
No, it is not an escapee from a zoo, disorientated by passing headlights. This is actually its home too, and as dusk arrives, strange noises can be heard from between rocks as more of these creatures raucously call out for a mate.
Yes, they are penguins. In a capital city. In the same place where people stroll their dogs along the breezy sea wall, penguins come ashore to find a place to nest; a far cry from Antarctica’s icebergs and the crashing southern oceanic waves where you’d expect to find the world’s famously cute black-and-white aquatic birds. Oh, and in Wellington, the penguins happen to be blue too…
With no less than six of the world's 18 penguin species, New Zealand is, in theory, a global penguin sanctuary
New Zealand coastlines and islands harbour no less than six of the world’s 18 penguin species, and 13 species in total have turned up in the New Zealand region (including the Ross Dependency of Antarctica) – more than any other country. New Zealand is, in theory, a global penguin sanctuary. With a bespoke governmental Department of Conservation (DOC) holding 30% of the green and diverse land for protection and recreation, you could be lulled into a false sense of security. But this wasn’t always the case: human arrival on the islands 700 years ago set into motion a downward trend for penguins. And while now DOC does make a big difference with invasive predator control and disturbance management, the agency receives less than half a per cent of the government’s annual budget. Despite the best efforts from those involved, penguins are far from safe, on land or at sea.
Accustomed to close urban encounters with Little “Blue” Penguins, and with one of the rarest penguins adorning their $5 note, you could be forgiven for thinking that New Zealanders are all penguin conservation experts. But there is another side to the story: one of penguins hidden by rainforests and dangers masked by the ocean’s foreboding surface.
What’s black and white and red all over?
Not a penguin with sunburn, but a penguin listed as threatened on the Red List, and it’s not funny. Some penguins might be hard to reach, but the dangers to the second-most threatened seabird group are becoming clear. New Zealand’s sunny shores and seas need much attention if they are to safeguard its two Endangered (Yellow-eyed and Erect-crested), and three Vulnerable species (Fiordland, Southern Rockhopper and Snares).
It all started with the arrival of humans in the thirteenth century. From early exploitation for food by Polynesian settlers, to clearance of breeding habitat and the introduction of mammalian predators, whether deliberately or accidentally, humans quickly meant bad news for penguin populations on New Zealand’s islands. “Waitaha Penguin” (potentially related to Yellow-eyed) was discovered through analysis of subfossil bones in 2008, and is thought to have been extirpated by early Polynesian settlers; while as late as the nineteenth century, the “Chatham Penguin” (potentially another crested species) went extinct on the Chatham Islands, shortly after Europeans arrived there.
This gung-ho entrepreneur’s team clubbed over three million penguins to death in thirty years
One of the earliest ever international conservation campaigns began because of – not thanks to – one New Zealander, Joseph Hatch. In the early 20th Century, this gung-ho entrepreneur and former Mayor of Invercargill began a commercial project which nearly wiped out an entire colony of King Penguins on Macquarie Island (to Australia). His team clubbed over three million penguins to death in thirty years and built big, metal “steam-pressure digesters” with which to reduce these fantastic birds to nothing but oil. Thankfully, international scientists and polar explorers objected and the oiling industry was halted before utter destruction. Today, although not as blatant as the threat of Hatch’s clubs, the threats to New Zealand’s penguins are no less severe and warrant an inspired new global campaign to save them.
Between sea and land, home or graveyard
“Penguins cannot range far from their nesting sites while foraging to feed their chicks, so require abundant food near to the coast”, says Karen Baird, Seabird Advocate for Forest & Bird (BirdLife in New Zealand). “Both direct and indirect impacts from fishing are a threat to penguins’ food supply, exacerbated by environmental changes from a warming planet.” Of all New Zealand’s penguins, only Snares seems to have a stable food supply, but that doesn’t mean it is not threatened – there is an ever-ominous danger of a rat invasion, plus potential for oil exploration and fisheries bycatch because there is no official marine protection for the tiny 3.5 km2 subantarctic island group this species is restricted to. “Bycatch” – accidental capture or collision with fishing gear – affects many penguin species (and other seabirds).
“Time is not on our side”, says Karen. “We need to reduce the impacts we know are occurring to penguins now, as climate change impacts are set to make everything that much worse.” The response required is multi-faceted: better management of land-based impacts, and vital protection at sea both to prevent bycatch and to preserve foraging habitat. “We need a coordinated approach to protect penguins”, says Karen. “Establishing a Penguin Recovery Group administered by DOC is also a priority.” But the foundation work needs more support: “We also need to undertake penguin surveys to determine population trends, more ‘Places for Penguins’ management and support for vital research to underpin the management decisions that will make a difference for these special birds.”
“We need to reduce known threats to penguins now, before climate change impacts make everything that much worse”
As well as launching a global campaign to put penguin conservation in the spotlight and raise vital funds, BirdLife is researching penguin bycatch further and calls for more observers on board New Zealand vessels. Meanwhile, Forest & Bird is also heavily advocating for large Marine Protected Areas for the east and southeast coastlines, but more reserves are needed elsewhere. “I want a future where New Zealand is a wild penguin sanctuary”, says Karen.
In Wellington city, a local walker sees a group of Little Penguins emerge from the water’s edge like a cauldron of bubbling blue oil and hurriedly stumble up the harbour rocks, back from a marathon day trip foraging. She smiles, watching them walk like little humans. She puts her dog on its lead and “tweets” a photo of a penguin preening its feathers, but she seems troubled as she gazes out to the dark ocean, imagining the gauntlet of threats this Little Blue faces out there.
This article was originally featured in BirdLife The Magazine, March 2017, and is now shared as one of a series on New Zealand’s penguins and conservation.
Thanks to Forest & Bird, Tawaki Project, Timaru Penguins and the West Coast Penguin Trust
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